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By Chloe Arrojado, Liz Howard, and Maya Jarrell
If Fabian Tinsley’s family wanted to visit his body, they’d have trouble locating it without a metal detector.
It took the family nearly six months after Tinsley’s death to learn where their loved one had been buried, without their knowledge, in an unmarked grave by prison officials at the Federal Correctional Institution Butner. Now the family says officials at the prison still haven’t given them answers about what happened to Fabian––in life and in death.
On April 16, Tinsley, 67, became the fifth person to die from complications related to COVID-19 while incarcerated at FCI Butner I.
According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons, Tinsley had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as risk factors for developing severe COVID-19. His death certificate notes a history of high blood pressure, high blood lipids and multiple myeloma, a treatable form of leukemia.
On April 6, Tinsley was taken to Duke University Medical Center after his lungs started to fail. He was placed on a ventilator.
Eleven days later, the prison announced his death in a statement published on their website.
Tinsley’s family members say they weren’t notified and only became aware of his passing after a news report announced his death.
According to the Bureau of Prisons’ escapes and death notifications report, prison staff must attempt to locate and notify next-of-kin, since they are exclusively authorized to decide the disposition of bodily remains. Per prison requirements, staff must also mail a death certificate and a letter of condolence to those listed.
“We had to reach out to the news so we could get more information through Butner,” Tinsley’s niece, Regina Febuary, said. “Because [Butner] wasn’t trying to give us no information.”
On August 5, CBS 17 published a news article detailing the family’s experience. The outlet published a follow-up a week later stating prison officials had called the family to apologize for not notifying them. At that time, Febuary told CBS News that she was waiting to hear from prison officials regarding how to transport her uncle’s body to Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
When North Carolina Health News spoke with Febuary on November 3, she was still waiting for contact from officials.
LaTeasha Boyd, Tinsley’s niece, said a prison official called the family in August and promised to send Tinsley’s death certificate after his passing made headlines. She said the chaplain from Butner also called the family, apologizing and promising further contact regarding Tinsley’s belongings.
But the family hasn’t heard from either of them since.
“To me, I feel like they only called us because we did that interview [in August] and it was bringing publicity to the jail,” Boyd said, referring to a WUSA9 story on the family’s attempts to gain answers. “Because they called within a week after all that happened. And now it’s like nothing. Nobody—they can’t remember who we are, it’s the run around again.”
When the chaplain spoke with Boyd, Boyd says he told her the reason the family wasn’t notified was that the emergency contact information in Tinsley’s file was blank.
Yet when Boyd asked the chaplain to look up her information in Butner’s system, the chaplain was able to find it, she said. Boyd also said the prison listed her relationship with Fabian as “friend” instead of family and contained an incorrect address.
Later, when Boyd spoke with the Bureau of Prisons in early October, she said the spokesperson gave her a different story, claiming that the prison contacted Tinsley’s ex-wife after his passing. Boyd says she was told that his belongings were now with his ex-wife.
NC Health News has reached out to contact Tinsley’s ex-wife but has not received a response.
“While for privacy reasons we cannot speak about specific circumstances surrounding a particular inmate, we can tell you notifications were made per protocol in the case you reference,” stated Emery Nelson, an employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Office of Public Affairs, in an email to NC Health News.
But Reginald Tinsley, Fabian Tinsley’s brother, said the prison has no excuse since their family’s contact information has always been available to them.
“Yes, [our information has] always been on his records,” he said. “From the first time he started spending time in the federal penitentiary, they have records of people who have visited him. The addresses of the people he got mail from, my mother’s address. Ever since he’s been in the federal penitentiary––my name, my wife’s name, my kids’ names––it’s no excuse. I haven’t received nothing.”
Fabian Tinsley was sent to prison after being sentenced in Superior Court in the District of Columbia to 23 years for armed kidnapping and armed aggravated assault. He had been in custody at Butner since November 15, 2018.
“He did his crimes. He did what he did and all that, understandable,” Febuary said. “He still had a life, and he still was a good person. He still got family out here.”
Boyd says that since 2018, her family has been contacting Butner officials in an attempt to establish themselves as Tinsley’s emergency contacts.
Officials never gave them the opportunity, she says, and instead “kept going in circles” by telling the family to speak with one prison official, only for that official to redirect them to someone else.
When the prison initially called Boyd after the news reports were published, she said they offered to cover the costs of transporting Tinsley’s body from North Carolina to Washington D.C.
But Febuary said an additional $7,000 was needed to have her uncle buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. The family set up a GoFundMe to cover costs associated with the transfer, as yet, no one has donated.
For now, Tinsley’s burial place is at South Granville Memorial Park.
His grave remains unmarked. It’s only possible to locate it using a system of underground metal pins, which indicate the location of bodies without headstones. Cemetery employees use metal detectors to find each pin.
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Tinsley’s niece Boyd said. “Even if I go to a burial site and there’s a marker there, we haven’t even physically verified our family member. We don’t know if it’s him.”
For Reginald Tinsley, getting his brother’s body to Washington D.C. remains a priority. When their mother was on her deathbed, he promised that Fabian would be buried next to her.
“Our plans haven’t changed,” he said. “Get my brother home. That will never change. I’m 70 years old. If I don’t do it, my children would.”
For his daughter, the experience is marked by a lack of closure.
“It hurts [my dad] the most because that was his baby brother,” Boyd said. “That’s it for him. His father’s gone, his mother’s gone. Now his brother’s gone – he’s the last one.”
This story was produced as part of a collaborative project with the Fall 2020 class of community journalism students at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill.